I was embroiled in an affair with a former teacher when I first saw Lionel Richie’s music video “Hello.” For those who haven’t seen it, the film—made by “music video guru” Bob Giraldi, of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” fame—manages to contain everything one could hope to find in a pop culture relic from the ‘80s. There is a copious amount of hair gel. There are myriad mullets. There is an abundance of shoulder pads. But overshadowing all of these nostalgic fashion faux pas is a premise that wouldn’t seem normal during any period of time, ever. A young Lionel Richie—cast as a drama teacher named Mr. Reynolds, wearing a plaid shirt bravely paired with a blazer and sweatpants—spends the entire five minutes and twenty-six seconds serenading a visually impaired student named Laura, while his lustrous mustache upstages him in nearly every scene.
It’s unclear whether the teacher’s feelings are requited and even more unclear if anyone can hear him. But we watch, helplessly complicit, as Mr. Reynolds follows the young woman. He sings passionately while lurking behind her in the cafeteria, belts the chorus while strutting through her ballet class, and eventually rings Laura on what we can only assume is her parents’ landline, interrupting her while she reads braille in bed.
I wish I could remember what my paramour, who had been born in the ‘70s and was more familiar with Richie’s work, said as he queued up the video for me. Were we ensconced in my dorm room? Huddled over my laptop in the library stacks? If I could conjure the scene, I might be able to untangle whether he simply viewed it as a campy, absurd pop culture relic or if he was tickled by the parallels between our situations. Given my amnesia, it follows that I also can’t summon my own initial reaction to the video. Did I see the irony? I’m ashamed to say that I was so deeply involved in my own love story that I may have missed the parallels completely. To be clear, I was in college, not high school, and the man I was seeing was clean-shaven and rarely wore sweater vests. But the core throughline was similar: a lot of longing paired with a side of uneven power dynamics.
After viewing the video today, I’m left with a lot of questions. Why was the dubbing so bad? If my S.O and I had to skirt the blocks around campus hoping none of our colleagues, my classmates, or his wife saw us holding hands, why didn’t Mr. Reynolds worry about anyone noticing as he followed a student through the halls, singing at the top of his lungs? And, most importantly, where is this magical school where students only take electives and why didn’t anyone tell me about it earlier?
My own illicit romance ended not with a wistful croon and slow fade to black, but with my teacher and his family moving away and me vowing to never speak to him again. One of the worst parts of secret relationships—second only to the fact that you can’t tell anyone how Besotted and Over the Moon you are while they’re happening—is that you have no public-facing excuse to be Extremely Depressed when they end. My friends didn't know I’d been seeing anyone. My family had never met him. Feeling alone, I banished all thoughts of Richie’s “Hello” to the recesses of my brain and searched for the perfect break-up song. There were, I reasoned as I clicked “play” on Adele’s 2015 release of the same name, plenty of less confusing songs about heartbreak in which to wallow.
Like Richie’s “Hello,” Adele’s “Hello” is also an ode to longing. But while Richie’s lyrics highlight the beginning of a relationship, Adele’s lyrics outline the end of one. Richie’s video is colorful and softly lit, while Adele’s is filmed in stark black-and-white. The age difference between Mr. Reynolds and Laura would best be described as “felonious,” whereas both Adele and her former beau appear to be old enough to buy cough syrup at their local pharmacy.
The main theme of both my relationship and the one depicted in Richie’s video, however, is absent from Adele’s story. Her video is about love, yes, but it isn’t about transgression. No one is getting off on catching glimpses of their crush in the hallway (Richie), sharing covert meetings in the library stacks (me and my guy), stalking their crush (Richie again), or fielding awkward run-ins with mutual acquaintances (a never-ending saga that punctuated my own relationship).
Don’t get me wrong; no one likes heartbreak. But there are bad kinds and there are worse kinds. And if the themes of Richie’s video are stalking, transgression, and understated plaid, Adele’s motifs could be summed up in four much more banal words: heartbreak, regret, driving wind. While I related, post-breakup, to the belting, agonizing melodrama seen in Adele’s video, in reality there was very little of that. Unlike the British pop phenom, I never got to sing my heart out while standing in front of a leaf-strewn pond, looking miserable, gorgeous, and utterly comfortable displaying my agony. Instead, I spent an absurd amount of time crying alone and lying, even after the fact, in order to ensure that my love interest’s wife, friends, bosses, and other former students didn’t suspect there had been anything untoward between us.
As the years passed, I slowly got over my former professor and the word “hello” reverted to nothing more than a perfunctory salutation. I put all the gifts he’d given me into a hat box and stored it away. I left the neighborhood where we’d met, discovered an affinity for true crime podcasts, ate sea urchin for the first time, and eventually quit my job to move to Hawaii. And then, one Friday night at an art event in Honolulu, I overheard another guest explaining that the horrendous snarl of traffic outside was due to a Lionel Richie concert. He was, apparently, on the last leg of his 2019 tour named—say it with me, now—“Hello.”
My date, an age-appropriate man I’d met at the beach the week before, whipped out his phone and immediately located last-minute tickets: $80 each on Stub Hub. “They’re too much,” I said, because I had wasted my four years of college on a humanities degree and was now an underemployed writer-cum-dilettante-mechanic. “I already bought them,” he said, because he had not and was now a corporate lawyer.
Upon entering the stadium, it was clear that we were the youngest attendees by at least forty years. Variations in bone density aside, the audience grew raucous as Richie, suave in his slick mustache and tight jeans, face projected to unholy proportions on the jumbotron, took the stage and launched into song.
“Is that a good thing?” my date shouted as Richie sang about a woman who was built like a brickhouse.
“Seems positive,” I yelled, nodding at the roaring audience. In front of us, a middle-aged woman boasting oodles of cleavage climbed onto her seat as she screamed along, waving her lit-up cell phone in the air. Other similarly excited concertgoers followed her lead while, beside them, dapper men sporting ivory suits stood and joined in for the chorus. I would say that when Richie finally played “Hello” it brought the house down but, in truth, it had been reduced to rubble long before.
At the end of the short, Lionel Richie-as-Mr. Reynolds sits at the piano alone, still singing his heart out when a student bursts in with the unlikely, “Mr. Reynolds, excuse me but there's something going on in the sculpture class. I think you ought to check it out." When the teacher arrives, he finds the object of his obsession sitting before a large bust that would maybe, slightly resemble him if he possessed entirely different features and his chin was the size of a modest chateau.
"This is how I see you," Laura says, looking him in the eyes with intensity because, in real life, she is a sighted actress and not the least bit blind. (If you’re thinking that this vignette makes no sense, you’d be right, but it still may be the least confusing part of the video.) One might expect Mr. Reynolds to kiss the student or confirm that, yes, the feeling is mutual. But no. Mr. Reynolds has been raised right and he wants to make sure he has greeted her properly. Or, perhaps, he assumes that the swiftest path to a girl’s heart is to hear the same standard greeting ad nauseum. So Mr. Reynolds goes with it. “Hellooo,” he sings as the video fades to black.
Leaving the stadium, I tried to explain the music video to my date, who had never seen it. “It really didn’t age well,” was the most diplomatic explanation I could muster. “It would be like if a really bad wine got worse with age.”
“I’m sure it’s awful,” he said, because it’s never a good idea to defend a slightly pedophilic video from the ‘80s on a second date. But I was bothered by the fact that the women who had been dancing in that stadium would have been the same age as the high school love interest when the video came out. If they weren’t bothered, who was I to judge? It wasn’t as if student/teacher relationships were as highly stigmatized when the video was released. Maybe the film wasn’t offensive if you didn’t identify with it so strongly. Or perhaps the fact that it was voted the “worst music video of all time” by an 8,000-person poll for UK TV music channel The Box was punishment enough. Maybe I just needed to move on.
But the truth is that Lionel himself has never been able to move on. Despite being skeptical when the video was first made—he reportedly asked Giraldi what a video about a visually impaired minor had to do with his song, to which the director replied, “You're not creating the story, I am”—it has since garnered over 29 million views on YouTube. And while its reception has not been entirely positive—the video was downvoted over 7,000 times on the same platform, has been mocked widely and vociferously by a plethora of internet articles, and was even riffed on by Richie himself in a 2015 skit for The Jimmy Fallon Show—it cemented something for him.
“So many people called me saying, ‘Rich, the girl stole your song, the girl stole your word,’” he said in an interview for CBS This Morning shortly after Adele’s “Hello” was released. “No, I don’t own ‘Hello.’” And yet, Richie is associated with the word in a way few can ever hope to be associated with an intangible, non-concrete collection of vowels and consonants. Richie has even admitted that he has come to dread answering the telephone, lest his salutation be greeted with a cheeky: “Is it me you’re looking for?” As someone who hates talking on the phone, this sounds like a great excuse to let every call go to voicemail. But for a man who has spent his whole life pursuing fame, maybe this is purgatory. I don’t know.
I do know that I haven’t seen my own former teacher/lover since I said good-bye to him the better part of a decade ago. I also know that while I sometimes miss him, I’m grateful that the relationships I’ve had since have been public ones, complete with moments of blurry, black-and-white, Adele-like melodrama that I didn’t have to hide. And if I could give Laura some advice from the future, I’d say go to the guidance counselor and switch out of that drama class ASAP. In a school with that many electives, there must be another option. Take Mandarin. Learn to code. It may be hard to believe now, but you’ll be making so much money in a few decades that you can hire a fleet of bodyguards to keep the overly interested drama teachers at bay. And in the meantime, when Mr. Reynolds corners you by your locker, be polite. Say hi. Tell him that of course you can hear him; you’re blind, not deaf. But you’re pretty sure it’s not you he’s looking for.